High-profile resignation of Cera chief highlights the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, says lawyer.

Bosses and company heads are being warned they need to be "much more careful" about their actions following Roger Sutton's sexual harassment resignation.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) chief executive announced he would stand down following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behaviour and comments to a female senior member of staff.

Employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk said the high-profile resignation highlighted the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, and was a timely reminder for companies to lay out their guidelines relating to equality, harassment and bullying.

However, she said the key reminder should be to bosses.

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"There is a higher expectation for people in positions of power because of the power imbalance [element of sexual harassment]," she said.

"The way that's borne out is that it's far more difficult for somebody who is a subordinate to object to [inappropriate] conduct, and that's why somebody like Roger Sutton might have thought that he was just joking and had a good relationship with this person, but the person didn't feel able to actually say, 'no, that's enough'.

"So a real message to people who are in positions of authority that you have to be that much more careful about what you do."

While the issue of workplace sexual harassment was brought into the public eye by the incident, it may not encourage others to come forward, said Ms Hornsby-Geluk, a partner at Wellington-based Dundas Street Employment Lawyers.

"You've got the person here who is ... being sort of made into a hero in the public eye, again potentially at the expense of the complainant, so I'm not sure that too many people would feel encouraged to raise complaints as a result of that."

There was "possibly more to this than we know", she said, because it was "a significant step for the complainant to make a formal complaint and have that investigated by the SSC".

This year there have been 11 employment dispute cases involving sexual harassment allegations before the Employment Relations Authority.

Last year there were 10 cases involving allegations of sexual harassment, and in 2012 there were six.

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The Employment Law Database dates back to 2005, when there were 15 cases recorded involving allegations of sexual harassment.

The Employment Relations Authority and its associated jurisdictions investigate and resolve employment relationship problems. When parties are unhappy with a decision made by the authority, they can challenge it in the Employment Court.

Colleague tells of 'huge toll' on woman

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority staff member whose claim of sexual harassment against her former boss was upheld, leading to his high-profile resignation, is maintaining her silence but a friend says the process has taken a "huge toll" on her.

Former Cera chief executive Roger Sutton resigned on Monday, admitting calling the female staff member "sweetie" and "honey", and giving unwanted hugs.

The complaint was upheld but State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie found the charges did not warrant a sacking.

The complainant has chosen not to break the confidentiality agreement believed to have been signed by all parties, but a former colleague said: "It's obvious the situation has taken a huge toll on her."

Former Cera communications adviser Tina Nixon yesterday blasted the "incompetent" SSC investigation.

In a series of fiery Facebook posts, she questioned whether "people really think that a hug was what it was all about?"

The law

• Sexual harassment law under the Human Rights Act 1993:

• It is unlawful for any person to make a request of any other person for sexual intercourse, sexual contact, or other form of sexual activity which contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment.

• It is unlawful for any person, by the use of language (whether written or spoken) of a sexual nature, or of visual material of a sexual nature, or by physical behaviour of a sexual nature, to subject any other person to behaviour that is; unwelcome or offensive to that person; and repeated, or of such a significant nature, that it has a detrimental effect on that person.

• The law applies to employment, education, and other areas covered by the Human Rights Act.

(Source: Parliamentary Counsel Office)

What to do about harassment

• Keep a record of incidents you find offensive.

• Talk it over with someone you trust who will keep the information confidential. This may help clarify what to do.

• Confront the person who is harassing you, and tell them you don't like their behaviour -- this can be in person, a letter, or with a representative.

• If that doesn't work or is inappropriate, you can seek advice from a sexual harassment contact person at work; a manager or counsellor; your union delegate or lawyer; a professional disciplinary body; the Human Rights Commission (0800 496 877); the police; or Employment Relations Authority (0800 20 90 20).

(Source: Human Rights Commission)

Roger Sutton resigned from Cera after a complaint that he harassed a senior female staff member.


• Read Dita De Boni's column about the issue at tinyurl.com/pah23t4